Mojave Road

An Adventure Through Time - Page 2

The winter morning was clear and bright, but a little windy, when I found where the Mojave Road crosses Highway 95 about 24 miles south of Searchlight, a few miles after both roads enter California. A rock cairn was on the right side of the trail, as promised by Casebier; I knew I was on the right trail. The road was a sandy path that led across a wide valley to the Piute Mountains.

This area was the western edge of the territory of the Mojave Indians. They would pass through here on the way to the coast to trade, but from Piute Valley westward we were in the land of the Chemehuevis and Piutes. These tribes were unfriendly to the Mohaves, and didn't take well to the Americans, either. They commenced hostilities on the Americans when the numbers grew from a trickle to a flood, and prospectors started hunting their strange gold rocks on their desert. That's where the 5 military installations come in; they were established to keep the watering holes secure and protect the mail and the travelers. Whoever controls the water controls the desert.

The first stop is Fort Piute. A day's wagon drive from the Colorado River, Piute Springs is located on the eastern slope of the Piute Mountains. It was a long haul -- mostly uphill -- from the River, a full day's work to get there by wagon. But it only took me a half an hour from highway 95, mostly in 4-wheel drive thanks to the sand. The fort was just where Casebier said it would be; around a cinder cone known as Jed Smith hill, and next to a creek that was all of two feet wide but running strong. Stone foundations remain to mark the site of the fort, as well as the remains of a ranch from the 1940s just downstream.

Fort Piute was never really a fort, according to the US Army. It was an outpost, called a 'redoubt', housing 18 enlisted men whose job was to occupy the land around the spring and the creek so the Indians couldn't. Without a supply of water, hostile forces could not operate in the vicinity, and the wagons making their way westward would be safer from attack.

Fort Piute, Jed Smith HIll in the background

Mojave Road Guide

The early travelers would continue westward up the canyon from the fort, but due to changes in the land since that time we have to backtrack and go around the mountain and the gorge. Desert storms have washed out the trail here and made it impassable for vehicles. It was on this backtrack that I learned once again that the rules of desert travel should not be ignored.

I'd only driven a half-hour from the highway, but it was a fairly good 4-wheeling road; rough and rocky in places, heavy sand in others, but not low-range tough. It was a good 8 miles, which would be a 3-hour walk and heavy work in the deep sand, which is the sort of fact one keeps in mind when heading out in open country. But when the Jeep stalled out on a tough climb out of Piute Creek, I wasn't worried until I realized the front wheels were not engaged. Behind me was deep sand. Even if I could get out of the rocks I was in, I'd probably not be able to pass through the sand without 4-wheel drive. But God looks out for children and fools and salvation was on the trail behind me, in the form of Dave Hughes and his Chevy Suburban.

Dave, a businessman from Hesperia, owns an auto repair shop and has built his Suburban into a fine off-highway trail runner. A lift kit and 35-inch tires gives it a lot of clearance, and the 460 hp engine he put in, with the winch on the front bumper, would let him tow any number of little Jeep Cherokees out of danger. But no 4-wheeler wants to be towed out. Not that I was going to object to a little help, or go looking a gift horse in the mouth. As they say, pride goeth before the fall.

Dave walked up and we kicked a few rocks out of the way, and after discussing the problem we backed the Jeep into the sand. I popped open the hood and Dave started following vacuum lines, then crawled underneath my rig and re-attached the line that controls the front wheel drive. I was back in business (and feeling foolish for not checking it myself). The Jeep climbed out of the riverbed easily. Dave, who knew the rules of desert travel as well or better than I do, was heading in the same direction and for the same reasons, so we traveled on together.

To cross the Piute Mountains, we had to go around to the Cable Road and take a low pass. The Cable Road was built to maintain the underground telephone line that was buried here during the days of the cold war. This is a beautiful pass, and as the road slowly climbs over the Piutes, splendid vistas appear along the way in every direction. Cable Road dropped us down into the Joshua-covered plain of Lanfair Valley where we rejoined the Mojave Road.

Marks of the past scar Lanfair. During the early 1900s, the desert went through a wet period, and settlers attempted to farm the valley. They ripped out acres and acres of Joshua trees to plant crops that didn't belong here. The dry environment defeated the farmers, but the marks of their efforts remain in the empty fields. These patches won't be fully reclaimed for hundreds of years as the Joshua grows very slowly. But in the parts of the valley where the scars of man are hidden, the forests are splendid and plentiful and the Mojave Road winds through them.

At times the trail is 2 or 3 feet below the surface of the surrounding land due to erosion, and the road is powder sand that grabs your wheels and tries to pull you in. Off the sides of the road are random signs of people: an old bus that may have been someone's home at some time in the distant past; a trailer or motor home parked off in the distance; a cabin built of rock; and an Omni navigation station used by aircraft. These things are remarkable only because we had seen almost nothing else to remind us of civilization, and we had traveled a good 30 miles.

We stopped to rest and stretch and examine an old piece of mining gear. It was an A-frame with wooden doors attached at the bottom. It probably went over a deep shaft, and the top of the A-frame was used with a block and tackle to lift the rock out of the diggings. It's old, desert-old, but still usable.

A few miles after crossing the Ivanpah-Lanfair Road, a nicely maintained and graded dirt road, the trail begins to climb and the terrain gradually changes. We were beginning to see more pinyon and juniper here as the elevation approaches 5,000 feet. We neared two important stops on the Mojave Road: Rock Spring and Government Holes. Rock Spring was the next watering station for the wagons when this was a supply trail, and it is still a pleasant little spot in a rock canyon between the mountains. Government Holes is about 2 miles further down the trail.

By the time we reached Government Holes, we'd traveled 40 miles on dirt, mostly in 4-wheel drive. Ahead was Marl Springs, but I had about enough trail-riding for one day. After 7 hours of off-highway travel every bone in the body feels shook down. We picked up the Cedar Canyon Road -- a super-highway, after the trail, even if it isn't paved. Dave was heading for the Mid Hills campground for a night in the pinyon high country. I directed the Jeep down the hill and back to the interstate, feeling like I had earned a night in a comfortable motel.

Cedar Canyon Road

Heading down Cedar Canyon, more breathtaking vistas unfolded. The Mid Hills and the Providence Mountains pointed southward beyond Kelso. The Kelso Dunes lay gloriously at their feet, a white streak that pointed west to the sandy expanse of the Devil's Playground. Ahead were the Beale and Marl Mountains, and to the north of them, the Cima Dome rose curiously to fill the space between the Ivanpahs and the Beales. In the foreground, a railroad track incongruously split the scene, and a long freight train moaned its way up the steep bajada to Cima.

A fitting sight to end the day.

The next time I was on the Mojave Road was several weeks later. My desert-dancing trail partner Suz was along. We'd spent a delightful morning at Goffs with Dennis Casebier, then headed northward to Cedar Canyon and the Cima Road. There, we picked up the trail and headed westward. Suz drove; she'd been cooped up in civilization too long and needed the time on the trail.

Mojave Road Guide

The trail lay before us, with not a single other mark of man within sight. We were in a magnificent Joshua tree forest. A falcon hunted in the sky above, soaring and sailing and keeping a sharp eye on the desert floor for his dinner. The road was rough, very rough, from washouts, and sandy washes kept us in 4-wheel drive as we made our way toward the Beale Mountains. We slowed to one or two miles an hour; jostling easily along, with no sign of the twentieth century around us; we were a wagon heading westward on the interminable trail to the golden land of California.

Mojave Road east of Marl Springs

We moseyed along, watching for dancing Joshuas and wild horses or burros; Casebier said this was a prime area for them. To our right was the unusual Cima Dome, but we were on the side of it and its dome shape was not discernable. The Beale Mountains slowly passed us by and we began the long march to the Marls. This is truly empty country; not another soul was in sight. But now the marks of our time were, as a power line from Boulder Dam to Los Angeles came into view as we approached the Marl Mountains.

The Marls were named by Army lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple. He was here on March 7, 1854, with a survey party. He gave the springs the name that later became associated with the mountains, because of the 'marly' soil around the springs; it is a type of clay that, when wet, clings and slips like caliche.

Marl Springs

The springs make a beautiful high desert oasis. The lower springs are fenced to hold cattle as needed, but the gate is left open most of the time. A wonderfully clear tank is full to the brim with water that is cold and fresh. This is a gathering place for desert animals for miles around -- wild horses, burros, coyotes, desert foxes-- and so much more take full advantage of the improvements made by the cattlemen to this ancient watering hole.

For a short time -- from October 5, 1867 through May 22, 1868 -- the Army stationed a few soldiers at Marl Springs. On October 17, three men -- Sgt. Thomas Johnston (who was in charge of the detachment), Pvt. John Ahern and Pvt. Jackson Thompson, all of Company "K," 14th U.S. Infantry -- were building a stone corral at the upper spring when a band of 20 to 30 Indians attacked. All three men made it to safety inside their stone headquarters, but the Indians laid siege to the outpost. The battle continued through the night, and in the morning, the soldiers were rescued in classic western storybook style: a column of 150 soldiers came over the hill and the Indians scattered.

West of Marl SpringsWhile standing at the upper spring, with the crystal-clear view eastward and the Marl Mountains behind, it isn't hard at all to hear the war cries of the attacking Indians. I hear the angry bark of the rifles and pistols, feel the rush of an arrow skimming by and taste the terror of imminent death as we run to the remains of the stone redoubt. We feel the incredible joy of just being alive, and taste the dread as night slowly but inexorably approaches: what will the Indians do? Will they leave as they came, silently and without any hint? Everyone must stay alert as the long night drags on. Feel the relief as the desert night slowly changes to false dawn, and the yellow and reds appear in the eastern sky; then the sun slowly rises, the column of soldiers marches in -- and the hostiles fade into the desert.

The Army occupied these springs for only a few months, but Marl Springs was an important stop along the Mojave Road for all of its lifetime. It is a distant 30 miles from Marl to the next watering hole westward -- Soda Springs, now called Zzyzx -- and it was a long, hard journey by wagon. The road passes through the heavy sands of the Devil's Playground, crosses the Mojave River Sink and takes us through Soda Lake before watering up at Soda Springs. And the water at Soda Springs was brackish at best, barely tolerable at worst.

So Marl was and is important, as the only water for many miles. During the wagon trail days, several different civilians operated stations here, where they could sell travelers a fresh-cooked meal, some grain for their horses and a place to sleep. Prospectors worked out of here as well; near the upper spring is a well-preserved arrastra, once used to crush rock to get gold ore out of it. The springs have always been a headquarters for the cattle industry. Now, no one lives (or camps) near the springs as that would keep the half-wild cattle and native animals away from the springs.

Tales of the Mojave Road - The Military A book on the military use of the road.

Proceeding westward on the road, we found ourselves in a uniquely beautiful area. The road reaches a summit, and the expanse of the lower Mojave -- the Devil's Playground, Cave Mountain and Soda Lake -- were at our feet. It was breathtaking, one more beautiful view in a land filled with beautiful views. We were indeed on top of the world here, in the heart of the wilderness, and forever stretches all around us.

But the winter day was waning; winter nights are bitter cold here, and driving on desert trails in the dark is a particularly difficult venture. It was time to head back to civilization. We made our way to pavement in the glow of sunset, and reluctantly left Dennis Casebier's road behind.

We'd be back. This trail is too special to be away from it for long.

By Len Wilcox
Author - Desert Dancing: The California Journal

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More on Dennis Casebier
Trails Notes Mojave Road
The East Mojave Heritage Trail
Book - The Mojave Road Guide
Book -Tales of the Mojave Road - The Military
Book The Mojave Road In 1863 - The Pioneering Photographs Of Rudolph D'Heureuse




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